Illinois budget hurts poor kids and education, but funds prisons

The Illinois budget deficit is a problem that has been going on for a long time. It has become the new normal for many state funded community services, and many service providers face extinction. The continuing crisis has led to a new “solution,” a deal that would cut the education budget by $210 million, yet keep funding for the overcrowded prison system.

Other options are available, such as the current bi-partisan push for Governor Quinn to undo his termination of a long running, early-release program for prisoners. The program got lumped together with a more controversial one that resulted in political backlash for the Governor when problems arose. Rather than risk further exposure on the issue, Gov. Quinn simply ended both early-release programs. As a result, the Illinois prison system has become dangerously overcrowded, now holding 14,000 more prisoners than the system was designed for.  Savings from a return to early-release (without the fear of political backlash) would contribute to balancing the budget.

The cuts to education particularly hurt those most in need, such as children of low-income families whose lunch programs will be cut.  The most recent round of cuts affected over 7,000 students, and the current proposed cut would reduce meals served by 45 percent. Illinois will move even closer to not meeting the minimum funding level per pupil, which has been at risk in the past. The cuts are particularly galling given evidence showing early education is directly linked to lower crime rates.

Higher education is also facing a hard blow – funding from the state would be reduced by another 5.9 percent, or $200 million. Grants for low-income students would also be slashed by the budget proposal. Currently, Illinois is providing need grants to only half of those who qualify – that would go down even further.

Medicaid is also looking at a sharp reduction. The current proposal of a $1 cigarette tax to help alleviate the shock is facing sharp opposition. Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry is fighting cigarette tax hikes in Illinois and elsewhere. This is particularly galling for health advocates, given that tobacco use is known to cost the Medicaid system in excess of $1 billion a yea. Experts hope that a higher tax on cigarettes would deter many from smoking and help prevent at least some children from starting to smoke, providing a monetary benefit in collections and deterrence.

The Department of Children and Family Services would also be cut by 6.8 percent, leading one senator to ask how those proposing the cut will be able to sleep at night. Advocates for DCFS have openly mentioned a rise in deaths as a likely outcome of the budget measure. We have seen sweetheart deals for corporations and the uber-wealthy in Illinois. Why is it so difficult to look somewhere other than the most needy and at risk when trying to balance the state budget?